Monday, July 23, 2012

So Much Growth Potential in Bunchertown


The 16th St. Bridge comes south from the North Side over the Allegheny River and then keeps on going. At the foot of the bridge, Downtown is close to your right and the heart of the Strip District immediately left, but back behind you for a couple of hundred yards is land. And all the way up the river behind the Strip, on the other side of the tracks, to Lawrenceville, land.

If residential development aspiring towards middle-class professionals, millennials and transplants springs up east of 16th St., it might actually work!!

You can't beat grocery shopping in the Strip, for cheap or for fancy.

You can't beat the access to Downtown, if you happen to work there.

It's flat and wide for biking. No huge problem getting up Penn Avenue to Oakland.

It's near the river, with trails and parks galore.

And as a resource to support what's going on Downtown and in the Strip, such a feed back-loop of people shopping and recreating would be intense. Heck, even the Valley across the river on the North Side might see some boost.

The real question is, why hasn't such a thing sprung up years ago?

It's probably risky. Expensive. Not a sure thing like a casino or a hockey arena. It takes deep pockets, a high tolerance for for risk, and a certain amount of trust.

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In terms of this development, some public officials are demanding at the outset a large enough buffer zone placed from the river, exacting historic preservation, scrupulous adherence to new storm water management regulations, a minimization of the concessions and incentives necessary to make a deal tempting, a community input process bordering on a co-management arrangement with an Occupy-style General Assembly, and the cessation of moving plans forward until a particular zoning matter involving a railroad easement is fully negotiated.

Governor Tom Corbett -- on the other hand -- wanted the Cracker plant here. And he got it. And the masses are thrilled to be able to take economic advantage of a geographic blessing.

This is the kind of thing that will haunt me, if we ever don't have Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to kick around anymore.

Will jobs be created while we're panicked about gentrification, about winners and losers, about ideology and about politics? Will we grow? Will we bloom?

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Pittsburgh remains from its heritage a liberal town. Concurrently in the modern age, it has also been a stagnant town. Over the past six or seven years, is word really starting to leak out that Pittsburgh has figured it out? Solved the puzzle or overcome certain obstacles? That something is cajoling our warm, fearful arms wide open to universal energies of macroeconomics and investment?

In the future, class-conscious Pittsburgh might pat itself on the back for organizing many of these new workers and residents. For encouraging their workplace and civil rights, their tenant rights, their rights and needs as urban-dwellers.

But before that gets to happen, it's possible we may need a steely gatekeeper -- fending off slings and arrows, wedging the door wide open with his shoulders and enthusiastically waving the world in as it is. Not as we wish it might be some day.

Making the most of it. Making it work.

32 comments:

  1. Totally agree. I have no problem with public officials and public activists working to make this project better, within the context of it actually getting done. But if such people are more interested in posturing than actually getting something good done, that's very bad. Because using land like this in a reasonably good way (not necessarily perfectly, just reasonably good) would have many, many broader benefits.

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  2. Projects are hard enough to get done without people that have absolutely no skin in the game, have no idea what they are talking about and certainly don't have their name on the dotted line posturing and grandstanding. Someone seriously explain to me what could possibly be bad with a $400 million private investment of new housing and office space along a stretch of land that is currently wasteland? Uh, seriously?

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  3. Hopefully they can break ground before Chuck McCullough's trial starts.

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  4. It occurred to me the other day how long it had been since the boy mayor was out front in Pgh. when I saw him at the Batman premier. He did show up on rt.51 after the flooding but that was because he didn't show up for the Washington Blvd. flooding. I guesss I need to go to the VIP section of the club scene to watch him work.

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  5. You write as though the Mayor is the only one who isn't posturing. In fact, they all are.

    The problem with this development is two fold. First Buncher, Mosites, Soffer and the URA has a history of destroying the character of what came before in an attempt to modernize. This is fine when it comes to an old South Side steel plant, but it has raised some eyebrows in East Liberty as a traditionally black neighborhood is literally pushed aside for eds and meds.

    And the Strip just isn't like those other two projects. It is thriving! There is a very real risk that public money will be used to subsidize stores that will directly compete with established tenants and the result will be something as bland and corporate as the Southside works or Eastside developments.

    Further, lets not forget that the area (and the administration) has a history of failed projects that were partially funded with tax payer money. The mayor's dream to bring a grocery store downtown failed, just like he failed to keep Iron City in Pittsburgh and he pissed away tax payer money in the process. And it isn't only there. The developments at the Dough Boy on Penn sit vacant as do those on the Western edge of Penn Circle. And how quickly we forget the sweet heart deal offered to Saks to keep a department store downtown. The mayor is certainly a dreamer, but after he brushes the crumbs from his nose it is the tax payer who foots the bill.

    Now it would be great if we actually got a good hard look at how the money will be used and what the potential for destroying the character of the strip would actually be. But we won't get that from the current cast of characters. Peduto will try to score points on the Mayor and I expect Dowd will use this chance to find a role for Lamb's expertise in examining the TIF deal. They Mayor will then obstruct and paint the naysayers as anti-development and they will back down. Certainly Dowd can't be trusted to actually follow through when there is any risk of alienating powerful people and Peduto will soon discover some new gadget/website/young-upandcomer to stand next to while he smiles.

    Finally, in the midst of all this debate you ignore the fact that the Strip has been developing and expanding quite nicely on its own. The public market is more and more popular and Marty's Market will soon have a unique and much desired set of offerings. True these are not as well-funded as what Buncher promises but because of that they are forced to integrate themselves into what already works in the Strip instead of remaking the whole place in Buncher's image.

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  6. @Anonymous

    The concerns raised in many of the articles to which Bram links are crucial not simply to ideal "wishes" of various special interest groups and visions but to the baseline practical needs and safety of current residents, businesses, and other users of the area to be developed, including lack of planning for public transit, for erosion, and for storm water management - the latter oversight leading to the lawsuit by PennFuture


    As PennFuture president notes: “The law requires that the city and PWSA adopt and enforce a program that ensures that stormwater is managed in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. The city’s own ordinance requires that any publicly funded project use advanced green infrastructure practices… They cannot simply ignore these legal obligations.”

    And I must counter the call to hasty "evolution" with a quote from Dowd's most recent letter to the Mayor:

    "You and the Buncher Company want to let the market determine where $40 million of the TIF proceeds would go. Your "laissez-faire" policy for development and lack of regard for local flavor is reminiscent of the era of so-called urban renewal – the results of which include the devastating East Liberty and Allegheny Center
    redevelopment projects - and could have similarly detrimental results in the Strip District."

    Let's learn from our own Burghian evolutionary history and think this process through before we lemmingly leap over the edge of the waterfront...

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  7. Funny post Bram. I wonder how many people, yourself included, were cheerleading for Mayor Murphy's grand schemes when they were first announced. Can't see why Ravenstahl's stab at developmental glory is any more deserving of robust public and political support than were the North Shore, stadiums, South Side Works, tearing down Sears in East Liberty, etc. Or perhaps that's Murphy's greatest achievement--his vision, persistence and ultimate success softened everybody up for future Big Digs. Now we don't ask "Why?" but rather, "Why not?" I definitely see a Tom Murphy Bridge (perhaps a renamed 16th Street Bridge) in Pittsburgh's future.

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  8. Anon 8:37 -

    "Buncher, Mosites, Soffer and the URA has a history of destroying the character..."

    I'd like to see the links and even then, I'm curious how far back in history you'll go. The URA is of course an institution that survived the 50's. While we're on the subject, as far as "raised eyebrows" in East Liberty beyond the corner with Baum -- show me the CarFax.

    "There is a very real risk that public money will be used to subsidize stores that will directly compete with established tenants and the result will be something as bland and corporate as the Southside works or Eastside developments."

    Or in this case, all consumers (hippies, douches and people who are actually in the middle or have different moods) are given a very *real* choice, not between identical toothpastes, but between American Eagle and Jimmy's Off-the-Back-of-a-Truck Emporium, between Trader Joe's and Stan's Market produce, between an IHOP and Deluca's. Between only attracting one type of person (bold hipsters and urban old-timers) and having a bunch of different sorts of persons around, cross-polinating consumer demand and possibly even each other.

    There will be *some* pockets of competitive market overlap, but greater variety and ultimately a better experience. Plus don't forget the *residential* component. A lot of those kids that will be raised on Buncher Oak Lane will get hip to the street quickly, that close not only the Strip but Downtown, and realize it's cheaper and healthier to by produce from the guys on the street.

    Why can't the Strip keep on expanding while the river plane expands? If you like thriving, let a bunch of things expand. Watch and regulate the "character" issues as they arise, sure. But we actually have the real estate to allow for that. It's *a third* of the Produce Terminal, for example, not a Godzilla movie.

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  9. Helen - The storm water regulations are interesting. I'm hearing there is a chance these are "not enforceable", which in complete fairness would not be the first time with new legislation. Am definitely looking forward to that Judge's ruling, wonder who has the case. Similarly, it's not so much a Burghian history as an American history. We should learn, but learning doesn't necessarily mean sprinting in the opposite direction while shrieking. I'm looking forward to Buncher's plans also, that sounds like a Planning Commission thing one day.

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  10. Anon 9:38 - We are basking in the glory of Mayor Murphy's grand schemes, and his bridge will be footbridge adjoining the Hot Metal.

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  11. Indiscriminately citing past development disasters--and certainly there have been plenty--isn't very helpful.

    In this case, we are mostly talking about converting surface parking lots into a mix of office and residential uses. Redevelopment of surface parking lots simply doesn't present many of the risks that become apparent when looking at our past development mistakes in places like the Lower Hill, North Side, and East Liberty.

    Again, there are various issues where specific and constructive criticism could be helpful--in fact stormwater management is one such issue. Another reasonable issue to raise would be whether the proposed use of this land is sufficiently intense in light of its prime location (in that sense, I think people who are citing concerns about too much use of this land competing with the existing developed areas of the Strip are advocating the exact opposite of sensible land-use policy).

    But also again, raising these concerns is only helpful within the context of actually getting a reasonably good project done. If instead the outcome is that these parcels are left as surface parking lots for many more years, that would be a public policy disaster itself, one in fact on a par with the very same redevelopment mistakes people are citing above.

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  12. Yes, certainly an American history, but we who call this city home have less excuse for not paying close attention to the still-fresh local history right here in front of our noses, in front of our eyes, in reach of our ears. Do you really want to characterize the voices of those who suffered the painful consequences of hasty development primarily shaped by short-sighted, bottom-line "market forces" and elite interests as "shrieking?"

    Bram, this commentary also seems to frame the crucial practical and ethical questions as either-or propositions - and to smear the inclusion of the public in the process as "bordering on an Occupy-style General Assembly." Maybe you have reacted against your experience of that often frustrating, yes, all too messily democratic Occupy process with what might be considered by some to be a new "realism" regarding the need for practical compromises - but perhaps you yourself are "sprinting in the opposite direction"?

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  13. How about just planting a big ol' public park on the site? It would improve the quality of life for Strip, Downtown and eastern North Shore residents and attract more residential development. Attractive open space is a plus for a city, even if developers, who make money filling voids, beg to differ.

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  14. One thing which puts me in a more comfortably long-term optimistic and curiously excited frame of mind which is different here than from most notorious historic urban development follies is: there is no raw and bleeding racial component, to bring out the worst tendencies of elitism or cultural insensitivity when it comes to the "gentrification" issue.

    Indeed there is precious little indigenous stakeholder component whatsover, since as BrianTH points out, so much of the area is parking lots servicing where Donzi's used to be. Whose pain-filled voices are we listening to, Helen?

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  15. One of the hard-earned lessons of urban development history is that large parks are often a poor use of land.

    Sort of random, but I am reminded of this post about the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston:

    http://oldurbanist.blogspot.com/2011/04/they-made-desert-and-called-it-park.html

    Relevant quotes:

    "With no one able to agree on anything in particular, the environmentalists of the late 1980s stepped in to offer the compelling alternative of nothing, packaged under the name 'open space' . . . . The missed opportunity is even more tragic given that one of the very few neighborhoods in the United States laid out in truly traditional fashion, the North End, with its narrow winding streets and attractive mid-rise architecture, sits right next to the Greenway. . . . The elusive vision is right there, a reality, not a fantasy, yet somehow it escaped the attention of Boston's elected officials, planners, architects and the public itself.

    On the day I visited, the North End was jammed with tourists snapping photos of the streets, students standing in long lines at pizza parlors, and many residents simply going about their daily business by foot. The few on the Greenway were walking briskly either toward the North End or back the other way . . . . Was there a sort of failure of the imagination here, an idea Nathan Lewis develops, that prevented and is preventing many Bostonians of the present day from really 'seeing' the examples of good urbanism that are right in front of them, or thinking that they might be imitated?"

    It is not hard to imagine a post like that being written about a "failure of imagination" among all relevant parties in Pittsburgh if we let all this land right next to the Strip be converted into nothing but "open space".

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  16. This quote from Jane Jacobs is also quite relevant:

    "We can already see that city districts with relatively large amounts of generalized park, like Morningside Heights or Harlem in New York, seldom develop intense community focus on a park and intense love for it, such as the people of Boston’s North End have for their little Prado or the people of Greenwich Village have for Washington Square, or the people of [Philadelphia's] Rittenhouse Square district have for their park. Greatly loved neighborhood parks benefit from a certain rarity value."

    I think this assessment is consistent with a modest amount of open space in the development area, particularly on the south side of the Produce Terminal and right along the river. But a giant park in the entire area between the Produce Terminal and the river would likely be way too much generalized park.

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  17. Bram, you know very well such development doesn't have to be racist to be elitist as the Greenfield folks down in the Run on Saline and Four Mile Run Road will tell you every time they get flooded after the parkway now drools them into yet another set of property losses - how many cars, water furnaces, washers and dryers, etc. etc, will those people have to lose before we plan ahead more carefully and/or follow models of rational watershed management such as in Philadelphia?

    http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/llevine/today_marks_a_milestone_for.html

    That's not the best link to answer you with regarding our own particular stormwater planning - and I don't have time to answer fully now but I definitely want to address the enforceability issues you raise regarding the Clean Water Act and address the potential losses of the small business owners along the Strip - on several fronts.

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  18. HG - Minding the storm water flooding and pollution situation does not necessarily mean complying with a particular city ordinance -- one whose enforceability issues I did not so much raise as allude to. See vacant property / "slum landlord" legislation, see pamphlets and littering, it's not really so far-fetched.

    I don't know anything about it -- honest Abe, seriously -- but wouldn't the City need to staff up significantly in order to police compliance? How significantly do you imagine? And could we get such a raft of new positions past the ICA in December?

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  19. Allude, shlamude. If you got enforceability issues, get 'em out on the table where I can see them.

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  20. And yeah, if I remember correctly from the minutes of this summer's CONNECT Congress, they are working on a database of slum lord and other ordinance "offenders" - at work, so can't go looking for the link right now...or any other of my own cards to lay down...

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  21. Someone explain to me how Southside Works or East Liberty destroyed anything? Jeez you liberal bloggers are nuts. I must have missed the part where Carson street fell apart and no one went there after Soffer build SS works. Did I miss where Shadyside and Highland Park and Friendship and Bloomfield fell apart after E. Liberty development? In fact to the contrary, we actually have controversy over development in Homewood. When was the last time that happened? You guys can't even get your complaints in a row. Some complain that Buncher's development won't have enough public spaces or retail. Um, in my book that then means it just has office and residential that will only help the Strip by pushing more people on to Penn and Smallman. However, others complain that it will compete too much with the Strip and will destroy it. Mwaahahaa! Seriously, that is lunacy. All these same people cried when they built Home Depot in E. Lib. Guess what, Home Depot got lots of white people driving into E. Liberty and realizing they didn't get killed. That changed the dynamic and allowed for the growth that is happening now. Go to the Home Depot some day. you will also see how it is helped the local black community. There are now lots of black contractors working around the city with easy access to inexpensive materials. Development has been nothing but good in all of the places that the naysayers complain about. Get a life.

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  22. Will somebody explain to me how you can tell which of the people who can't be bothered to pick a pseudonym is a liberal?

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  23. Helen,

    Isn't it interesting that this stormwater management scheme only targets publicly-funded developments? Now I have no issue with these requirements applying to the Strip District project precisely because of its' proximity to the Allegheny River and the outfalls inherent currently with the sheer amount of impervious cover along the Allegheny from Downtown to the 62nd Street Bridge, but when those same requirements are aimed at, say, publicly-funded redevelopment projects in poor neighborhoods, then a different analysis comes into focus.

    I have little sympathy for Buncher as they can finance their way through to compliance, but let's face it: Development projects in thriving neighborhoods have much better market conditions, require little or no public financing, and as such, actually cost less to erect than in poor neighborhoods precisely because of these new stormwater regulations.

    The market doesn't lend itself to much in the way of purely private development in poor neighborhoods, so building affordable housing or commercial or retail uses almost always requires some level of public subsidy.

    DO you thin it is fair for SWM to make it more expensive to build the new house or market in Homewood than in Squirrel Hill simply because it is more likely to require a taxpayer subsidy?

    These schemes always sound good, especially when our politicians round up hundreds of the poorest people in the area to advocate for them, but then when you look at the things in practice, it is the very communities these poor folks live in that suffer from these allegedly well-intentioned ideas...

    More importantly, as a percentage of all new development/redevelopment, publicly-funded development accounts for less than 10% of all projects. So for the 90% of those projects requiring no subsidy, those developers aren't held to the more restrictive standards.

    Why? Because to apply the rules universally would be bad for business and for labor which is precisely why it only applies to publicly-funded developments.

    There's a whole lot of impervious cover in that world of 90%, so much more so that one could theorize that the legislation betrays any real attempt to address its' stated issue.

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  24. Rex, I hope to have time to do your comment justice in the next few days!

    Bram, you ask, "could we get such a raft of new positions past the ICA in December?" Not sure if "a raft" is the number needed, but staffing (or dedicating hours of current staff) to enact the ordinance as an actual practice rather than just a piece of paper sounds like a worthy adventure.

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  25. Anonymous LiberalJuly 25, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    "Get a life."

    The desperate rhetorical flourish of the lazy Conservative/Libertarian. Got a point to make? "Get a life" nails it. If only Socrates had been so clever.

    By the way, some contractors out there aren't so thrilled with Home Depot

    http://www.contractortalk.com/f11/home-depot-not-contractor-friendly-103795/

    So ... GET A CLUE!!!!!!!!! ;~>

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  26. Great points Brian TH. Thanks. I was actually thinking more along the lines of a Washington or Rittenhouse Square type park, not a too big space like Point State Park. Just didn't express it properly. However, Pittsburgh and private developers seem to only go halfway when creating public spaces, like the fountain and courtyard in front of Cheesecake Factory at SS Works, or the fountain/skating rink at PPG Place. Larger, greener parks, like Mellon Square, should be the goal.

    Regarding the Rose Kennedy Greenway, you quote a blogger who doesn't like it. Fair enough. But I was there in April and was impressed with it. After walking around Boston's dark and claustrophobic Financial District it was a huge relief to come upon the bright and airy Greenway. Yes, the North End is vibrant, but there's room for many types of urban experiences in a big city.

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  27. And let's not forget Schenley Plaza. A very successful green space. 4.5 acres. Would Buncher commit to something of that quality, along with a riverside park/bike strip?

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  28. Brian TH, you write:

    .. If instead the outcome is that these parcels are left as surface parking lots for many more years, that would be a public policy disaster itself, one in fact on a par with the very same redevelopment mistakes people are citing above."

    Yes, and thanks for your other excellent points here, as well as your encouragement to be more constructively specific in the use of examples from past development planning mistakes that seem to be applicable to this project.

    Really appreciate seeing Jane Jacobs referenced by you and one of the Anons here to make such good points about mixed-use neighborhoods and smaller sized parks.

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  29. Helen,

    As to your point about Parkway run-off flooding residents in the Four-Mile Run, I turn your attention to this explanation of how the alignment of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway was selected and why:

    http://www.pahighways.com/interstates/I376.html

    But it is important to keep in mind that prior to the passage of NEPA in the 70's and the establishment of the EPA, little, if any, consideration to environmental concerns was given to major capital projects at that time.

    We couldn't build another urban expressway in this region if we wanted to right now precisely because of unintended consequences.

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  30. I'm definitely in favor of quality greenspace being included in the overall plan. I'm not convinced, however, you need more than the riverfront park to serve that purpose, particularly if that portion is also widened a bit for stormwater reasons. Ultimately that should add up to a significant amount of acreage to begin with, and of course the river greatly expands its effective scope.

    I would also agree that care should be taken with the plaza approaching the river at 17th to make sure it is a true asset. But I am currently in favor of that area mostly being hardscaped, because ultimately that is more conducive to higher levels of activity (see, for example, the new Market Square). In that sense, I think it sometimes gets lost in these discussions that the most important attraction in settings like this is actually other people, and a space like the new Market Square which may seem a little plain if viewed empty or in a rendering can have huge appeal once it is actually populated.

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  31. @Rex Thanks very much for the link - I'll share it with some of the residents of the Run that I'm working with on the Clean Rivers Campaign.

    @Brian TH
    Permeable pavement and other green infrastructure incorporated into hardscape could address practical, aesthetic, and economic concerns you raise for a plaza: http://cleanriverscampaign.org/green-solutions/

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  32. I agree, Helen. There may be some stormwater issues that are harder to resolve, but managing the water in the public spaces, regardless of general design, should not be one of those issues.

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